Hello, dear MFA applicants, candidates, and curious others. By some lovely miracle, I’ll be joining the poetry cohort at the University of Virginia next week. I want to use this first post to reflect on my fears about beginning the program—to write them down before they are either confirmed or dispelled.
Of course, I’m still dazed with delight about UVA. I feel like I’ve won the cosmic lottery, or gotten a late Hogwarts letter. I got into three different types of programs (Philosophy PhD programs and Divinity Schools) but the University of Virginia MFA is the one I pined over. They also notified last, so I had plenty of time to get my hopes up, then get blue about my inevitable rejection, then find myself looking up rentals in Charlottesville, then remind myself of the odds, and secretly hold feelings of inadequacy when friends got into incredible programs, and on, and on, and on. The feeling of being accepted was amazing—it almost hurt to feel so suddenly drained of worry and filled with wonder.
This summer, I’m lucky to have a cool job—I’m a River Ranger for the Forest Service in Utah. It’s less bad-ass and more janitorial than it sounds, but I get to row dories on the Green River. It’s lonely out here, but the only real problem is that I’m too fixated on the Fall to feel present here. I’m amazed by the fact that however slowly the hours ooze by, time does, in fact, continue to move along at the same pace; I will actually be my future self soon, arriving in Charlottesville. I privately felt that by fixating on this fact, I might trick myself into making the summer disappear behind me.
Whether by my will or not, the summer has flown by. Now, all of a sudden, I’m hoping for it all to slow down. How could I ever be prepared to start this program?
Because my heart was so set on UVA, it didn’t seem real to me, emotionally, that there would be challenges after being accepted. It felt like acceptance was both peak and plateau: there’s the anxiety of waiting, and then – [heavenly choir, golden light] –the good thing! But of course, there’s no plateau. the terrain will be strange & difficult.
Here are some of my fears, confessed. Maybe I’m not the only one working through these:
Fear that I have become stupider during time away from school
This feels true, at least. I’ve been working in the desert, and haven’t had much in the way of intellectual community over the last year. I’ve been reading madly since I graduated, but I’m reading the wrong things: like, all the Harry Potter books again, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett…books of short stories, novels…my books on craft are, after months, still half-finished. I’m not reading much poetry, which seems like almost criminal negligence, some kind of damning ingratitude.
Irrational fear that I was accepted by mistake
Imposter syndrome keeps sneaking up on me. I even feel it about being picked to write for this blog. Everyone else has an impressive bio and is clearly a real poet. I have a nagging nightmare that everyone in the program will share a quiet understanding that I don’t actually belong. That I haven’t been serious enough, that my work (mostly documentary prose poetry) isn’t the kind of thing they do there, that there must have been some mistake.
Fear that poetry might lose its magic when it’s my total focus
As an undergraduate, my focus was history of philosophy. Hampshire College devotes the fourth year to a major project, and I was consumed by researching, drafting, and revising a 200 page philosophy paper. That year, I wrote my poetry manuscript over the course of about one poem a week, and those writing sessions felt like stolen, joyful moments. It seems strange now that the poetry manuscript has been more successful, that it has now held greater influence over my life, since the poems were written with much less effort. I worry that in an MFA program, poetry will no longer be a private magical sanctuary, that it will become stressful. Maybe this is exactly what my writing needs, but I would feel this loss all the same. And what if, under those stresses, I won’t be able to write in the same way?
Fear that my writing voice will change
My writing voice changes from time to time, from project to project. This sort of shift seems out of my control, and I’m a concerned that whatever mysterious aspects there are to being able to write well will fly away. I’m not worried about writer’s block, just worried that I won’t be able to write anything good.
Fear of Twitter, of having to promote myself
I discovered recently that if you google “Emily Lawson poet” the first hit is a completely different Emily Lawson with a poetry blog. This is probably a bad thing for me and a problem I am completely unprepared to try to solve. In our 5-person cohort, there will be another poet with the same first name, and nearly the same last name, as mine. This seems like a fateful reminder of my non-special-ness, and also a reminder that I’ll have to do something to be recognized. I’m not sure what that is, but I think it probably involves doing something with SquareSpace. Also, Twitter frightens me.
One thing about entering the MFA world, which I haven’t heard talked about much, is that trying to be recognized seems like part of the deal. It seems like recognition is the thing—your program wants to produce a published, known poet. My acceptance letter notes that, “Relative to our size, the graduates of no other MFA program in the country have had more success than ours in publishing their work in topnotch venues and winning significant prizes.” What if I don’t? I can write poetry any time, but once I’m in an MFA program, it seems like, suddenly, poetry is something I could fail at. This is strange, and I’m not sure how to navigate this pressure, or how strongly I will feel it.
Fear of the publishing game
I haven’t been trying to get my finished manuscript or new poems published since being accepted to UVA, even though I know that’s unwise. It just felt so nice to be accepted that it seemed silly to try to prove anything—but of course, I’ll have to submit again, pay all those fees, wait for verdicts. I’m going to have to steel myself for many more rejections to come.
Fear of being cut down in workshop for real this time
Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I’m worried that I grew too used to, as an undergraduate, being the one in the poetry workshop whose work was generally admired and touched lightly by professors and peers. I know MFA workshops will likely be different, and though that’s pretty much the whole point, I hope I’ll be able to cultivate the right mix of self-assurance and humility to make the best use of tough criticism.
There are other worries: that my cohort won’t click, that the house I’ve signed a lease for sight-unseen will end up being lousy, that I’ll fall into depression, that I won’t figure out how to write about this presidency in my poems, that I’ll miss philosophy. But in the end, I feel I couldn’t be luckier, and I can’t wait to explore the years ahead.